Fifteen years is a long time, and my memory is generally fairly poor. But I remember when and where I was when I had the idea for The Alcohol-Free Shop as if it were yesterday.
It was December 2004. I’d given up drinking in the June so I was still fairly recently sober.
Me and my then-wife Chris were having a Christmas break in a lovely cottage in Snowdonia. After the years of problems my drinking had caused, it was a welcome break. And it even snowed too. It was a picture-postcard Christmas. Our dogs Paddy and Max had a ball.
Sadly, the other reason this sticks in my memory so much is it was the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on that boxing day. Nearly a quarter of a million people died. You tend not to forget things like that, and in a strange way, it made me even more grateful for my recent sobriety and my random good fortune of birth.
While we were having our Christmas meal, I suddenly decided that I would like a glass of red wine to go with it. Not for the alcohol, but for the taste – and, to a lesser extent, the occasion. I didn’t have one of course, because all we had was alcoholic wine for Chris. But it got us thinking – and talking.
We talked about it over the holiday, and decided to research the market. On our return to Manchester, I set about finding out as much as possible about it. Despite taking a long time and a lot of work, it could be summed up as “Almost nothing available in the UK, a lot more available in the rest of Europe”.
Yes, you could get Kaliber beer and Eisberg wine in some places, but – apart from being pretty disgusting – they were still hard to find.
I remember my late-father urging caution saying something like: “Just because you want it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
A fair point, but it turned out others did want it too.
We found that out the day we went live on 28th May 2006 – and immediately got our first order from a stranger.
Still being cautious, my dad said something like: “That’s great – but let’s see if they return to buy again!”
Thankfully they did return – along with many more customers.
It seems I wasn’t the only person in the UK who wanted a better choice of alcohol-free drinks.
We sourced products from around Europe and even America – bringing great new drinks to the UK.
A different era
It was a different era then of course, and we had to develop a thick skin. I was called numerous things, possibly the tamest of which was “a harmless crank”.
We were laughed at by almost everyone in the UK drinks industry, with only a couple of rare exceptions from forward-thinking people.
But we didn’t care that much. What mattered was serving customers who, like me, wanted alcohol-free drinks – for whatever reason they had.
It wasn’t up to the drinks industry to tell us what we would drink. If they didn’t want to sell alcohol-free – the vast majority didn’t, and quite viciously so – then we’d find suppliers who would.
Slowly, but inevitably, the UK industry has changed for the better. Although it’s fair to say it was the influence of fellow like-minded pioneers who forced this on the established breweries by starting their own alcohol-free beer brands. Companies such as Big Drop, who took a huge risk that I’m pleased to see has paid off for them.
There’s still a long way to go though. And, sadly, I think most of the UK industry and especially the supermarkets are currently throwing muck at the wall to see what sticks. To them, it’s just a product. It could be toilet paper, or baked beans. All they care about is volume and profit.
Things will change again – and soon
As inevitably as they came into the industry, it’s as inevitable they will consolidate their offerings and reduce their range. The industry isn’t as big as it has been made out to be. Compared with the alcoholic market, it’s still tiny.
It is true that, unlike the alcoholic market which is declining, the market for alcohol-free is growing – but it will have to grow a lot more for the big players to really care.
Many of them will diversify into other areas before that happens, I would imagine, especially if cannabis is legalised in the UK and EU as it has been, to varying levels, in almost every state in the USA now.
The large companies in the alcohol industry have already made big investments in this area with AB-InBev (Becks, Budweiser and many others), Constellation Brands (Corona), Heineken, and Molson Coors being just some of the companies who have made investments and partnerships to get into the market. They follow in the footsteps of the tobacco industry who have also entered the cannabis market. Neither industry cares what they sell, only that it makes them a lot of money.
We’re not all the same though…
That’s where we, and the smaller producers in the alcohol-free industry, are different.
We’re here because this is an area we passionately care about. We care that people, like me, who can’t drink – or those who just wish to cut back on their alcohol a bit – have an adult choice of great-tasting alternatives. That’s all we’ve ever cared about. And that’s all we ever will care about.
It’s been at once a long 15 years, but equally it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. It’s had some amazing highs, and some terrible lows. But we’re still here. Still fighting for the cause. Still fighting for the rights of adults to be treated as such, regardless of what they choose to drink.
And when others have moved on to other markets and are chasing the next “big trend”, we plan to still be here for you. Ready, and more than happy, to provide you with the great range of alcohol-free alternatives that you not only deserve, but are entitled to.
Thanks for your custom since 2006, and here’s to the next 15 years. We have a lot planned, we hope you’ll continue the journey with us!
John, Chris, and all at The Alcohol-Free Shop
ps. we’ll be putting together some special offers to celebrate our 15th anniversary throughout the year, so stay tuned!
15th Anniversary Video
Watch our short 15 year anniversary video!